Meet 2023 Environmental Justice in Tech Fellow: Kenia Hale

Earth Hacks
10 min readAug 31, 2023
2023 Environmental Justice in Tech Fellow Kenia Hale

Listen to an audio version of the interview here.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity)

  • Kenia Hale: Hi y’all, my name is Kenia Hale, I use she/her pronouns, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio although I currently live in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I am currently a emerging scholar, pre-doctoral fellow at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy and the Ida B. Well Just Data Lab. I also work as a co-head teacher at the Octavia Project, and I am an environmental justice in tech fellow at Earth Hacks
  • Earth Hacks: Thank you for that! We’re so glad to have you here. So to start off, the first question is, how would you define “environmental justice in tech”?
  • KH: I would define environmental justice in tech as the recognition of the ways that technology, though often obscured, or deemed to be something that solely exists in the clouds, is actually deeply embodied in the environments around us, and thus has far reaching effects on the environment and the people connected to those environments across the world. So, EJIT is borrowing from like Environmental Justice frameworks and applying that to our technologies so that we’re not just engaging with technologies but also like the entire supply chain and all the far reaching effects of our technology.
  • EH: Amazing, as most of us recognize in this space, Environmental Justice work is not something that can be solved quickly, it’s a very long game, so as you continue researching and creating and doing work in this space, what motivates, energizes, or recharges you as you’re doing Environmental Justice work?
  • KH: In my own Environmental Justice work, I’m deeply inspired mostly by my roots. I am a descendant of African Americans in Cleveland, Ohio, folks that came up from the south and were brought here because of slavery. So throughout all the generations of my family, we’ve been deeply involved with the land and thus unfortunately, we’ve also beared some of the brunts of the degradation of the land. So like a lot of my family has asthma, and across the country and around the world, Black people, Indigenous folks, and people of color are always bearing the brunt of environmental injustice. So even though, say, in college I studied computer science, I brought that ethos with me, and I continue to bring that ethos into every room that I go to.
  • EH: You touched on computer science and your work is very interdisciplinary, you’re an artist, you’re a writer. You’ve written some speculative fiction, in one of your pieces, Data That Chills, you touch on the implications of data systems, surveillance, and false or misleading climate solutions. As your character asks at the end of the story, for you, what would an actual future of “collective data ownership” look like?
  • KH: To me, an actual future of collective data ownership would look like, first off, transparency around the ways our data is being used and/or misused. It would also look like us having control over that, so, if you see some way your data is being used and you don’t like it, being able to opt out. And opting out not necessarily being that is an afterthought, but it’s like ultimately, I think any kind of data ownership must forefront consent. So like the consent about being involved in like data collection, data use, et cetera. But I think consent is the bare minimum. Outside of that, there is a whole world of data and our relationship to it that is like outside of the traditional western imagination of data and human beings as simply being points in a data set. I did a talk about Black and indigenous data stewardship. Essentially I was just thinking about creative ways Black and Indigenous communities have found to collectively like steward, whether it be the land, our relationships to it, community businesses, that kind of thing and what it would look like to apply that to data right now
  • EH: Yeah, I think I saw in another interview or article, you talked about expanding the definition of what we call “technology.” And there was a project where you defined “technology” as “a tool to accomplish a task.” Can you talk about why it’s important to have that kind of framework for the idea of technology whereas I think in the western imagination the idea of technology it’s very like, digital, it’s like robots and computers.
  • KH: Yeah so, I was interested in expanding the definition of technology and making it broader because if we don’t — the whole colonial project is about distancing Black, brown, and indigenous communities from our power and from our brilliance. And so, in defining technology more broadly –Or not just broadly, but decentering the kinds of technology that are at the forefront of like Western imaginaries — allowed us in that research project (Liberatory Technology and Digital Marronage) more space to honor the incredible power that comes from Black and indigenous relationships to technology. So for example there’s a Mixé scholar based in Mexico, her name is Yásnaya Aguilar Gil, she had this whole talk where she talked about indigenous relationships to technology and environmental justice. And basically said like, it’s a shame that people say indigenous folks are underrepresented in technology, when so many of the minerals that literally, all of our technologies require, are mined from indigenous lands. And that I think was a north star for me, in thinking about like, technology not just as like the physical computer I’m talking to you on, but also like what are the politics going into these technologies, what are the hands that have touched these technologies. And not even just that, but like within these communities, there have been all sorts of really wonderful technologies or tools that have been left to the wayside, or misattributed, or just their origins have been obfuscated, so I’m also interested in expanding our definitions of technology in those ways too.
  • EH: You mentioned one scholar, I’m curious, are there other folks or organizations working in, or thinking about Environmental Justice in Tech topics, that you would like to shout-out?
  • KH: Yeah! So I just did a talk so I’m going to list the four speakers in that talk. One of them is Joycelyn Longdon, she is a PhD student and the CEO of Climate in Colour, which is a UK based EJ accessible education organization. And Joycelyn is doing really fabulous work in Ghana working with indigenous communities to think through how technology may lend itself to bioacoustics and conservation.
  • I’ll also uplift Emmanual Alie Mansuray. He is based in Sierra Leone, he is a geographer and innovator who when encountering a lot of e-waste in his community, basically used it to make a solar-powered car, and also making prosthetic legs for the folks in his community and stuff. It really helped me think through like, as folks in the West who aren’t faced with e-waste on the day to day, what is the bodily impact on folks that are living in communities where that is a reality and what are the creative ways that they are addressing some of those waste problems.
  • I’ll also uplift Peter Mui who is the director of Fixit Clinic, which is a grassroots technology fixing and repair organization based out of California. He has these grassroots “fixit clinics” that teach people how to repair their own technology and it’s just like super cool.
  • And lastly, I’ll uplift Dr. Grace Akese, she is based in Ghana and she does research about e-waste dumps in Ghana and the embodied lived experiences of folks that work creatively with e-waste in ways that complicate this like, Western, global north-global south binary like “oh the global north is just dumping all its e-waste on Africa.”
  • EH: Your work has spanned so many different topics in Environmental Justice in Tech. Y’know I’ve seen you talk about things around data, surveillance, the right to repair, minerals that we need for electronics. There’s just so many ways that the environment intersects with technology. For you, how do you manage the vast implications of all those topics, how do you decide what to work on? When there’s just, there’s so much!
  • KH: I think it’s like, so obviously, the question about how I decide what to focus my Environmental Justice in Tech energy on is one that I think kind of comes from the culture of the internet and this constant 24 hour news cycle of like constantly being bombarded by all the things happening on earth — and getting stressed out about it all the time, and the necessity to find some sort of focus. Because y’know none of us will save the world alone and none of us can do everything all at once. I think for me, my journey in EJIT has been one that’s not very traditional. I went to college and studied computer science and architecture. And at first I was on the traditional kind of software engineer, software developer route, but I got really fed up with the way silicon valley companies were not holding themselves accountable, essentially, to ways they were harming communities like mine and also the communities surrounding their companies. So that was my first foray into thinking through like, just thinking more critically about these companies because I was not seeing anyone talking critically about them. Once I got into the critical tech and technology policy space, I was still interested in surveillance and those kinds of things. I think as a Black person in America, that’s something that I can never ever not think about, but I started to see more so the wide-ranging field of technology policy and see the things that people are addressing. And I think thankfully, right now, there is a good amount of scholarship around surveillance and privacy and stuff — especially with AI, like everyone’s talking about AI right now. But I was still just not seeing anyone talking about environmental justice in tech and if they were, it was not people from the communities that were most affected by it and it was definitely not uplifting any of the voices of people from the global south or folks that were mining or living with e-waste or things like that. That’s where I now find myself, just wanting to uplift those stories in the same ways that I want stories of my communities to be uplifted as well
  • EH: Another thing you mentioned is no one is going to save the world alone and you’ve talked about this in previous interviews, where it’s really important to work together and take care of each other as we’re doing this work. So my question is how do you cultivate mutually supportive communities on or offline.
  • KH: More recently, I’ve been really trying — I was going to say “invest” but I’ve been trying to like move away from the language of capitalism. What’s the non-capitlaist word for invest? I’ve been trying to steward. Around the question of how I’m learning to sustain community, both on and offline, I’ve been trying to get creative about the ways I find community and the ways that we hold on to each other. Because again, one, everyone’s always going through their own stuff, and it’s hard sometimes to keep people’s attention. But I think social media is something that isn’t meant to foster genuine relationships. Again I think it is meant to foster attention and less so, sustain community. So I’ve actually been attempting to distance myself from Instagram, Twitter, I don’t have a Tik Tok or anything like that. And I’ve more so just been texting people, or like texting them little photo albums, or texting them a photo of a tree I saw today. I also am really blessed to be surrounded by, like physically surrounded, lots of really cool people. I live in New Brunswick, New Jersey and there’s a really big DIY music scene, a really big art scene. So like, a couple friends of mine just started a drag house. And it’s less so about waiting for institutions to create the spaces for what we want and more about just like creating the spaces ourselves. Like I said, my friends just started a drag house and they just have drag shows in their basement and y’know people pay $5 at the door and they get in and get to see it. An amazing drag show. My friends and I host like art making nights, open mic nights, my friend and I just started a publishing press to further uplift a lot of the artwork and writing and stories of, not just our friends, but the wider young artist community. I think it’s ultimately about creating the spaces you’re looking for rather than looking for them. And also not just relying on social media, or traditional forms of social media. Cause that’s the other thing about technology that gets me, often there’s this idea that technological progress is something that’s linear and the next app is always going to be better, and not the other way around. And I think, like a lot of the friendships I have created online have been from older places that then continued on. So like I still talk to some folks that I met on Tumblr in like 2013 and like I don’t use Tumblr anymore, and now we’re mostly on Instagram, but I don’t know that I would have found those kinds of relationships on Instagram. The context of the platforms definitely lends itself to whether or not you can actually form and sustain community on it.
  • EH: Yeah, that’s a really good point. We’ll close with the question of what Earth Hacks EJIT project are you most excited about?
  • KH: The Earth Hacks Environmental Justice in Tech project that I’m most excited for is probably the EJIT tracking project. We’re still deciding exactly what that means, but I would love it to look like a form of tracing different relationships between environmental justice in tech activism across the world as a method of helping people see transnational solidarities and similarly being able to track information about tech companies that are not abiding by their Environmental Justice commitments or e-waste dumps and that kind of thing. Collecting data that we can give to activist groups to help them better in their fights. I’m excited about that one. And also! My aspirational goal is I would love to make an Environmental Justice video game sometime this summer! Being able to blend some of my speculative fiction, as well as my video game design love.